SBD/January 31, 2011/Marketing and Sponsorship

NHL Looks To Engage Young Fans Through Guardian Project

Guardian Project features superheroes
representing all 30 NHL teams
The NHL used this past weekend’s All-Star Game to officially unveil the Guardian Project, a collection of superheroes representing each of the league’s 30 teams. The initiative, a joint venture with Stan Lee’s SLG Entertainment, will be a large focus of the NHL’s marketing efforts in the coming months, with the league specifically targeting boys 9-14 years old. The characters, revealed during the second intermission of yesterday’s game at RBC Center, were introduced in a theatrical short shown on the scoreboard. Fans entering the arena received a poster featuring the characters. Versus, the CBC and RDS aired the unveiling as part of their game coverage. The characters also were front and center during the NHL’s Fan Fair at the Raleigh Convention Center. Images of all 30 Guardians greeted fans as they walked into the facility, and fans waited in a long line to don glasses to get a 3D look at several of the characters. A limited number of graphic novels sold out during Fan Fair, and teams will begin carrying the comics and other merchandise when they return to regular-season action. The debut was met with a mostly positive reaction from fans during All-Star weekend, but some blogs and media pundits have criticized the new marketing approach. NHL Exec VP/Marketing Brian Jennings maintains the league’s focus is on growing the series organically and building the brand among young fans. “Considering the target audience, and frankly where some of the criticism has come from, it just seems to be a little misguided and, in some instances, a little misinformed,” he said. “I’m hyper-focused on how boys 9-14 react to our superheroes, not necessarily middle-aged men.”

SUPER POWERS: Jennings would not reveal how much the NHL is spending to push the superheroes project, but conceded it is a major focus for the league. The NHL and SLG Entertainment formed Guardian Media Entertainment in October to oversee the project. The initiative includes a website,, that will eventually host social media games and other activities. The NHL hopes to develop a Saturday morning cartoon based on the characters. The league’s U.S. TV media rights deals expire at the end of the season, but Jennings noted a Guardian Project program would likely be pitched to networks as a separate property from game rights. Eventually, the league would like to see the Guardian Project develop into a feature film. NHL officials met with several league partners, including Kraft, Honda, New Era and Pepsi, Saturday to discuss plans to market the initiative. Jennings said sponsors embraced the idea, and many expressed an interest in taking part in the Guardian Project in some way. He noted any deals reached will be separate from the companies’ existing agreements with the league. “There’s no magic panacea in anybody’s marketing arsenal,” said Jennings. “But we felt it would be great with rich storylines to not only mobilize our young fans in a unique and imaginative way, but have a property that has the possibility and the potential to reach out to new fans.”


TEAM EFFORT: The NHL and execs from SLG Entertainment worked closely with all 30 teams to help shape their superheroes with characteristics unique to their cities and brands. Stan Lee’s team initially pitched the concept as a licensing play around the characters, but the league saw an opportunity to further develop the characters’ storylines. In the coming months, teams will go back into their markets and use the superheroes as part of special Guardian nights. The NHL is also building out customized assets for the teams to use on their TV broadcasts and video boards during games.

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